More Important than Life and Death

THREE AND A HALF billion people – a third of the human race – are estimated to have watched the Olympic Games on television. In Australia millions tuned in to cheer national heroes like Kieren Perkins or Cathy Freeman. The 1996 Olympics have been the most successful ever for Australia, no small source of satisfaction in a country where sport attracts such attention (and financial support) that some people have dubbed it the national religion. Expectations that are pre-millennial in their fervour are now being fixed on the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

According to the polls, 71 per cent of people who live in Melbourne are supporters of one or another of the city’s Australian Rules Football teams (in Britain punters bet on these teams in the summer pools). Gary Ablett, who plays for Geelong, is widely known as God.

When he scored his 1,000th goal earlier in the season, the crowd held banners proclaiming Messiah, your time has come. A newspaper photograph of a player from a rival team lying injured on the ground after an encounter with Ablett carried the caption What happens when you meet with God. Ironically, Gary Ablett himself is an evangelical Christian.

A local Melbourne newspaper refers in its index to pages of sports coverage under the heading of Religion. When I saw it, this did not surprise me but I must confess I was astonished to read a comment by the retiring Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little. There’s a lot of similarities between religion and belonging to a football team, the archbishop, who was described as Essendons number one ticket holder, told the Sunday Age. You have a sense of identity, of belonging, you know you’re loved by those of a like mind. I come down here and see everyone wearing red and black and I know they’re my brothers and sisters.

Archbishop Little has been replaced by Dr George Pell, an Oxford- educated conservative who is highly regarded in Rome. The new archbishop is an Aussie Rules enthusiast who once harboured dreams of playing for Richmond but I doubt if he would dub Footy as his religion.

However, religious veneration for sport is not confined to Australia. The British novelist, Joyce Carol Oates, proclaimed recently in the Times Literary Supplement in words that are worth pondering, that in our time religion has been replaced by organised spectator sports.

Not God but numerous gods – reigning athletes of extraordinary if often fated gifts, she wrote, not a transcendent spiritual bond with a purposeful universe extracting from its believers rigours of conscience and behaviour, but an immanent dramatic bond often sharply defined in terms of nationality, ethnic identity, class and locality. The decline of religion as a source of significant meaning in modern, industrialised countries has been extravagantly compensated by the rise of popular culture in general, of which the billion-dollar sports-mania is the most visible manifestation. (TLS, July 12th, 1996).

With his plans to spend millions of pounds of lottery money on improving British sport, John Major is a good example of the trend to which Joyce Carol Oates refers. But her words set me thinking. If sport can replace religion for so many of our contemporaries, what does that say about the way in which religion is understood today? Sport can certainly provide a sense of purpose and belonging as followers unite to support their team, but is this all we look for in religion?

Joyce Carol Oates begins her review by quoting some words of the American philosopher, George Santayana, who observed that Another world to live in is what we mean by religion. In other words, religion offers an escape, entertainment, cosy togetherness, a realm of myth and liturgical excitement to take our minds off the toil and challenge

of daily life.

There could surely be no greater indictment of the poverty of our present religious understanding than attempts to equate religion and sport. Sport holds out no hope of redemption, no universal ethical code to live by, and no promise of transformation, yet it can still be seen as an alternative to religion. This can only mean that Christianity (for we are dealing with a Western phenomenon) has shrunk and withdrawn from playing the lofty role it once fulfilled.

Sport offers no promise of eternal life. If they are played in the right spirit, games can help to form character and physical exercise undoubtedly benefits health but this is a small thing to set beside the gift of a new quality of life spoken of in the gospel. While sport can generate a spirit of togetherness, it can also stir up crude nationalist passions and turn into what has been described as the pursuit of war by other means.

Far from bringing people together across racial and national boundaries, sport usually fragments and divides the human race. Sports heroes can be men and women with personal qualities but they can also be greedy for gain and ready to use drugs in a desperate attempt to succeed. Advertisers, television companies and commercial sponsors hover like vultures seeking to use sport for their own ends.

Complaints of national rivalry and drug taking abounded at Atlanta. Sportsmen and women are far from being gods; they are sinful human beings in need of grace like the rest of us. Far from being a substitute for religion, sport itself is desperately in need of redemption. Christians might be able to help save sport if they could recover a vision of the transcendent, earth-shaking, life-changing significance of their faith. If they prefer to talk of their beliefs as offering a useful set of myths and stories to live by, or to devote their attention to domestic disputes or the re-arrangement of their sanctuaries, many people will go on deciding there is better entertainment at the Olympics or the Footy.

Paul Richardson is the Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.